Jul 31, 2012 No Comments ›› Pat Dollard
(CHRON) Texas’ drift toward the Tea Party brand of GOP conservatism continued Tuesday when lawyer Ted Cruz scored a surprisingly easy win over David Dewhurst in the Republican primary runoff for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Cruz once was considered a long shot to take down well-heeled Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst – the favorite of the party establishment and Hutchison’s heir apparent. But he steadily gained in the polls during their bare-knuckles campaign brawl, and his lead opened up as soon as the earliest returns were posted. By 8:30 p.m. the Associated Press had named Cruz the winner.
“It shows that we’re able to mobilize in a state this large, where everybody said it couldn’t be done,” said Ryan Seth Hecker, chief operating officer of FreedomWorks for America, a super PAC and Tea Party support group that backed Cruz. “What it shows is that real bottom-up energy can win here, and if it can win here, it can win anywhere.”
On the Democratic side, former state Rep. Paul Sadler trounced San Antonio educator Grady Yarbrough for the chance to face Cruz in November.
In the 14th Congressional District, ultra-conservative Randy Weber claimed an easy victory over fellow Pearland resident Felicia Harris, a former city council member. Weber, a state representive once labeled among the most conservative members of the Legislature, was backed by Tea Party groups as well as Gov. Rick Perry and outgoing Congressman Ron Paul, who is retiring.
On Houston’s eastern flank, the newly drawn 36th Congressional District pitted eccentric former Congressman Steve Stockman against Baytown accountant Stephen Takach, and early results had Stockman narrowly ahead. Stockman scored a stunning upset of longtime incumbent Jack Brooks of Beaumont in 1994, when a band of insurgents led by Newt Gingrich helped Republicans take control of Congress. But his penchant for bizarre behavior and outlandish accusations translated into one term in Washington, as he was defeated by Nick Lampson.
Stockman was backed by several prominent Christian conservatives as well as some Tea Party groups.
Another longtime Republican moderate, state Sen. Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio, also ended up a victim of the Tea Party crusade. He was trailing by a 2-1 margin to Donna Campbell with almost half the votes counted and certain to fail in his reelection bid after more than two decades in the Legislature.
Dewhurst, 66, came to the race with advantages including a large personal fortune built in the energy business, which he tapped for his campaign, and a name already well known to Texans. Calling himself the most conservative-ever lieutenant governor, he has the backing of state officials including Perry – who preceded him as lieutenant governor – plus support from groups representing business, agriculture and other interests. He also is backed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Cruz, 41, offers a life story rooted in his father’s flight to freedom to the United States from the Batista regime in Cuba and a record as state solicitor general of handling cases on issues dear to conservatives’ hearts.
Cruz has never held elected office, but he has campaigned relentlessly across Texas to court grass-roots groups and has captured the imagination and backing of national movement conservative groups and personalities. His backers range from the Club for Growth to FreedomWorks and from Sarah Palin to Rick Santorum to archconservative U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina. Supporters at home include former state GOP chairman George Strake and George P. Bush, the politically involved nephew and grandson of the former presidents.
Dewhurst finished first in the May primary but did not get the required majority for the nomination.
Texas’ other U.S. senator, John Cornyn, offered quick congratulations.
“This has been a hard-fought and spirited primary battle, and the people of Texas would have been fortunate to have any one of these well-qualified candidates as their next U.S. senator,” Cornyn said. “But I could not be more pleased with the nomination of Ted Cruz.”
The importance of the race could be counted in the numbers alone. It was the most expensive non-presidential race this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The two men’s campaigns and outside groups poured a combined $46.3 million into the race, as tallied by the center.
Dewhurst lent his campaign $24.5 million and paid himself back $5.1 million. Cruz put about $1.4 million personally into his race.
A Cruz victory would add another voice to the Senate cadre led by DeMint working to move the GOP agenda further to the right.
Dewhurst, by contrast, is described as a more pragmatic conservative who would find a natural fit working with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
A Dewhurst win also would trigger a race for lieutenant governor if he is elected in November and then resigns.
State senators would choose among themselves for a successor as acting lieutenant governor until the next election. The 2014 election for the seat has already drawn interest from Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples. Comptroller Susan Combs also is considered a prospect.
The GOP runoff, however, is expected to be the decisive matchup because Texas has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994.